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March 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Our Town: Teaching tolerance Our Town: Teaching tolerance (March 23, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Children are not born hating other people. They learn that from others.

They can also learn better things, such as being tolerant of others who are different. It works, too.

Mary Sano's 6th grade class at Jordan Middle School had two visitors last Wednesday morning. Katie Cuevo and Priti Sanghani are Stanford University students who are interning with Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, the group started by the Rev. Diana Gibson, formerly of First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.

Cuevo and Sanghani came to teach peace to the kids, ages 11 and 12.

They started off with excerpts from a video called "Promises," about Israeli and Palestinian children, about the same age as Sano's students. It's a powerful video. The students watched it carefully.

In the video, two Israeli children arrive to visit several Palestinian children in a camp. A Palestinian boy says matter-of-factly to an Israeli: "Don't speak Hebrew in the camp."

The boys play soccer, wrestle, eat dinner together. Then they sit around and talk.

"I understand how they feel," an Israeli boy says. "I would feel the same way."

The visit becomes emotional when a Palestinian boy starts crying while telling of a young friend who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.

Later, one Palestinian boy says to another, "Now we've become friends, but will they forget us as soon as they leave?"

Sano asked her students for reactions.

"It didn't seem fair that the (Israelis) were in charge of everything," a girl said.

"How would you feel if you were one of those kids?" asked Sanghani.

"I am one of those kids," a boy replied -- an Israeli who moved to Palo Alto last year. "It's scary to be there," he added later. "Both (sides) are scared."

"It's not really fair for the kids," a girl said. "They haven't done anything wrong."

Another girl said that if Palestinian and Israeli children got to know each other they could "grow up being tolerant of each other."

The students were asked what injustices they see in their own lives. One boy spoke of having his mother searched at the airport because she looked like she could be Muslim. A girl said her Jewish friends aren't allowed to visit with her in her grandmother's house.

"Some people have more than others, and that's not fair," another girl said.

The Palo Alto students relaxed and warmed up as the morning went on, getting used to having visitors. They interacted easily with each other, making small jokes. It was a mostly white class, 13 girls and 11 boys. One girl was African American, one boy Asian American, another girl might have been Southwest Asian.

Sano asked what sort of injustices the students see at school.

"Bullies," one boy said.

"There are cliques," a girl said.

"What do you do about those things?" Cuevo asked.

"The school has 'mix-it-up' days," a boy said -- when students are supposed to hang out with students they usually don't.

"Do people actually do it?" Sano asked.

"No!" several students said.

Sano explained to me that "mix-it-up days" are an idea from what she called the "teaching-tolerance people," the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center tracks hate groups and publishes a semi-annual magazine for educators.

Later, the students performed short skits they were asked to put together based on what they heard that morning. The skits were just a few moments long each, but perceptive.

One skit was about avoiding a student because he is different, another was about a schoolyard bully and a third was about two homeless boys panhandling for money but receiving food instead. "We didn't give them money because they might buy alcohol," a girl explained.

Cuevo asked the students to write down what they learned.

"I won't bully people again," a boy said.

"I won't treat others differently and won't make stereotypes," a girl said.

Many of the students were dressed in partial costumes because it was "Superhero Day" at Jordan. The capes and hats seemed appropriate for the kids in Mary Sano's class.

Weekly Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be emailed at The video "Promises" by Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg is available on DVD at the Palo Alto Library.

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